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Airline executives: Engineers can have an important policy role

Airlines continue to need the intelligence and creativity of Michigan engineers and other graduates to maximize efficiency in an insanely complicated business.| Medium Read

ANN ARBOR, Mich.— Engineers have an important role to play in airline policy, said speakers at a recent industry executive panel on how policies affect airline operations.

“We need engineers at the table who can do quantitative analysis,” said Andrea Fischer Newman, senior vice president for government affairs at Delta Air Lines, and member of the U-M Board of Regents.

Fischer is one of five influential senior airline executives and consultants who came to campus earlier this month for Airline Industry Day. The event was an opportunity for the executives, all of whom are U-M alumni, to meet with students and faculty and discuss their industry. In addition to Newman, these executives participated:

  • Kerry Hester, senior vice president of operations planning and support at US Airways
  • Timothy Campbell, consultant and former president of Delta Compass Airlines
  • Derek Kerr, executive vice president and chief financial officer at US Airways
  • Kevin Michaels, partner and co-founder of AeroStrategy consulting firm

“We alums have used our Michigan educations to become senior leaders in this industry,” Campbell said. “Airlines continue to need the intelligence and creativity of Michigan engineers and other graduates to maximize efficiency in an insanely complicated business.”

Among the topics the speakers discussed are the challenges the industry faces as it operates under new laws such as the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

Amy Cohn, an associate professor in the Department of Operations and Industrial Engineering who researches airline industry operations, moderated the panel at which this was discussed. Cohn has spoken on Capitol Hill about the effects of the Passenger Bill of Rights.

The law, which went into effect in April, levels hefty fines on airlines if a plane is delayed on the tarmac for more than three hours. In such situations, the airline is now required to bring the plane back to a gate to let off passengers who wish to exit.

It’s hard to disagree with the motivation behind the law, Cohn says. But she and the airline executives believe the rule causes additional, perhaps unnecessary, cancellations and threatens to create bottlenecks in a massive and complicated system. Bringing a plane back to a gate is often not as easy as it sounds, panelists said. Typically there aren’t gates sitting empty, especially at the busiest airports where these delays would be most likely to happen. (Cohn says they occur on about one-hundredth of 1 percent of flights.)

“Airlines are now completely focused on this timetable in everything we do,” said Hester, with US Airways. “Hundreds of planes have been returned to the gate and many were cancelled. In our experience, when planes return to gates, very few customers choose to deplane.”

The rule is a regulatory reaction to an incident in 2009 in Rochester, Minn., when 47 passengers were stuck on a parked plane for many hours. The plane had been diverted because of thunderstorms to the Rochester airport, which was closed.

“Before regulatory policy is made, the full system-wide costs and benefits need to be assessed,” Cohn said. “Engineers are uniquely positioned to do this analysis, and should have as prominent a role in Washington as economists and policy makers. When you make even a small change in a complex system such as an airline network, the impact can snowball throughout the whole system.”

The departments of Aerospace Engineering and Industrial and Operations Engineering collaborated to make Airline Industry Day possible. And students from across the university gathered to take part in the day’s events. Multiple departments in the College were represented, including Mechanical Engineering, Industrial and Operations Engineering and Aerospace Engineering. Beyond the College, students from the Ross School of Business and the College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA) also participated. This was mirrored in the panel representation. Airline industry executives are alumni from business, LSA and engineering.

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Nicole Casal Moore
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